The Guardian (London)

July 17, 1997

This is the face of
Amado Carrillo Fuentes - and it may have cost him his life. As Phil Gunson reports, the No 1 drug trafficker known as the 'Lord of the Skies' died shortly after eight hours under the plastic surgeon's knife in his bid toevade pursuit by changing his features. But ultimately there was no escape . . .

BYLINE: Phil Gunson


LENGTH: 3646 words

The powerful downdraught from the rotor blades of the drug squad's US-supplied helicopter tossed the red, mauve and white opium flowers violently back and forth, and a pungent smell of hot, damp poppies filled the chopper as the pilot set it down.

A three-acre clearing amid pine trees, on the edge of a spectacular ravine, this plantation might produce 30 kilos of opium gum, the base for up to four kilos of brown heroin. 'You remember that song from the Rolling Stones?' said the grinning Mexican cop with the mirror shades and the red bandanna tied round his head. 'Brown sugar - that's the one.' These are the badlands of Mexico's golden triangle, where the borders of the northern states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango meet in a wild landscape of rugged, pine-clad mountains and dirt trails. One third of the marijuana and almost half the opium produced in Mexico come from these small plantations in the heart of the western Sierra Madre.

Half an hour away by helicopter lies the town of Badiraguato, birthplace of a cast of top Mexican bandits that would put a spaghetti western to shame. Drug capos Rafael and Miguel Caro Quintero, Hector 'Whitey' Palma, Ernesto Fonseca and 'El Cochiloco' are all natives of the town they call 'Little Chicago', which lies on one of the few paved roads to penetrate the Sierra.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes, whose death on July 4 left vacant the post of top Latin American narco, controlled the golden triangle. And though he wasn't born in Badiraguato but in the nearby municipality of Novalato, it was here - by all accounts - that he learned his trade.

So well did he learn it that at the time of his death, aged 41, he was worth an estimated $ 25 billion. For comparison, Forbes magazine's 'richest Latin American' - Mexican Carlos Slim - is worth a paltry six billion.

Though doubt has been cast on this guesstimate of Carrillo's wealth, police this week said they had seized 54 properties and frozen bank accounts totalling $ 10 billion. This raises interesting questions as to how they were able to move so fast against a man who, when alive, had seemingly thwarted them at every move.

If you can smoke it, snort it or inject it, Carrillo's Juarez cartel will supply it. But it was neither marijuana nor heroin that took him to the top. The source of his wealth and power, and ultimately of his downfall, was a white powder whose source lies a couple of thousand miles away in South America.

Amado Carrillo, in short, was the reigning king of cocaine. His nickname, 'Lord of the Skies', was a tribute to his audacious habit (later abandoned) of stuffing refurbished Boeing 727s with up to 15 tonnes of the drug and flying them non-stop from Colombia.

Of the hundreds of tonnes of coke entering the US each year, 70 per cent is said to pass through Mexico - and Carrillo was by far the biggest trafficker. 'Obviously Amado's at the top of the hierarchical structure,' said Art Doty of the El Paso Intelligence Centre (Epic), a multi-agency task force that tracks the drugs trade worldwide.

In bribes alone, Carrillo was said to pay out $ 500-800 million a year. The rest he spent on ranches, luxury town houses, Lear jets and parties - and on sending his children to school in Switzerland.

To avoid detection, he would fly from one clandestine airstrip to another, staying low to evade the radar. Yet so effectively did he grease palms that as recently as a month ago he could reportedly eat out in his favourite restaurants in Ciudad Juarez - the border town he made his base.

In the vicinity of his ranches local people knew his weaknesses - stuffed chilli peppers and a stew made from pork belly - and would hasten to prepare them when 'El Hombre', as he liked to be called, was seen strolling with his bodyguards down the street.

But though he was generous with the workers he hired - a Christmas bonus of more than pounds 250 and a case of whisky was not unusual - he was notorious among the Colombians for failing to pay up on time for shipments. And his enemies found to their cost that he could be a cold-blooded killer. The streets of Juarez would be strewn with the corpses of alleged informants, police say, whenever a big drugs seizure was made.

In November 1994, police in El Paso found three bodies in a car boot. Retired Mexican police officer Jose Munoz and his two sons had been stabbed to death and tied up like parcels for delivery. The most striking touch was the yellow cord tied round Munoz's mouth and finished with a bow. Carrillo was the prime suspect.

But unlike other cocaine barons, Carrillo was not, it seems, a lover of violence for its own sake. 'He is above all a businessman,' a US source said. 'If he kills or tortures, he does it for economic reasons.' 'He has the ability to form alliances,' said Art Doty. 'One man cannot effectively control drug trafficking in Mexico - there's too many people. You have to form relationships.' And form them he did, not just with Colombia's Cali cartel - now described by the DEA as junior partners to the Mexicans - but, equally importantly, with the people who might otherwise have got in his way, the Mexican authorities.

In July 1989, for the first and only time in his life, Amado was arrested. Guadalajara police charged him with drugs and weapons offences, photographed and fingerprinted him and jailed him pending trial. Nine months later he was quietly set free, never to be seriously troubled again until the arrest and swift deportation early in 1996 of Juan Garcia Abrego, head of the Gulf cartel, left him exposed as Washington's most wanted man in Mexico.

Yet this was no minor trafficker. According to a list obtained by the newspaper El Financiero, police had seized a dozen aircraft from him, including jets.

From 1988 to 1994 the president of Mexico was Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose brother Raul has languished for the past two years in the top-security Almoloya jail, charged with illicit enrichment, money-laundering and conspiracy to murder. Evidence directly linking Carlos Salinas to drug trafficking has yet to be uncovered. But scarcely a close associate has escaped the taint.

At the time of Amado Carrillo's arrest, the man in charge of Mexico's 'war on drugs' was Javier Coello Trejo, identified more than once by defendants in cocaine trials as a protector of the capos. When Coello left office under a cloud Salinas replaced him with retired army general Jorge Carrillo Olea (no relation to Amado), who was named this year by the New York Times, citing US government sources, as an ally of the traffickers.

Many of Amado's sequestered properties are in Cuernavaca, capital of the state of Morelos. And the name of the current governor of Morelos? Jorge Carrillo.

Some sources claim a direct link between Salinas and Amado Carrillo. According to Eduardo Valle, a former adviser to the attorney-general who says he was obliged to leave the country after uncovering narco-links with the government, 'a witness who is neither compromised nor biased says he saw Amado Carrillo and Carlos Salinas together after the incident of his arrest in 1989.' Valle adds: 'The shade is provided by Los Pinos' - a punning reference to the president's official residence, which translates as 'The Pines'.

Unlike Colombia, where a weak central government has allowed the proliferation of regional mafias which infiltrated the power structure, in Mexico the authorities have from the beginning been partners in crime, experts say. 'Even during the revolution,' says sociologist Luis Astorga, a specialist in the drugs trade, 'the military governor of Baja California was accused in US documents of handing out virtual franchises to the opium growers. The subordination of the drug-traffickers to the political structure has been tremendous. The narcos have been used as a source of important financial resources.' Peter Lupsha, an academic specialist in organised crime and money-laundering, is even more direct: 'In Colombia, the drug capos are threatening the state from outside. In Mexico, they're part of the state.' There is ample evidence that the US was fully aware of high-level drug corruption in the Salinas years but chose to look the other way. 'Once George Bush and Salinas decided to go with Nafta (the North American free trade agreement) as the number one goal,' a US official told the New York Times in 1995, 'then everything else had to be made manageable. On the issue of high-level officials being involved in drugs, we said, 'Carlos, as long as we're getting results, we are not going to micro -manage'.' It is a policy they may have regretted when, in February this year, Gen Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, the man in charge of Mexico's anti-narcotics agency, the INCD, was arrested for taking million-dollar bribes from Amado Carrillo. The subsequent scandal, which led to a move in the US Congress to 'decertify' Mexico as an ally in the drugs war, put Zedillo under enormous pressure to do something about the drug barons, and particularly Carrillo.

Some idea of the intensity of the effort can be gleaned from the fact that on Mother's Day the PGR deployed 25 aircraft and mobilised 200 police and soldiers in 10 cities - ranging from Tijuana on the northern border to Cancun in the south-east - in an effort to discover where the country's most wanted man had taken his mum for lunch.

The stress, it seems, began to tell. Although he scarcely ever let himself be photographed or filmed - and police had vague and contradictory information about his appearance - Carrillo was determined to make himself unrecognisable.

Early on July 3, he checked into the Santa Monica hospital in the elegant Polanco district of Mexico City under a false name, accompanied by two surgeons from his native Sinaloa and a third from Colombia. In an eight-and-a-half-hour operation they performed liposuction of the thorax (removing, according to press reports, 14 kilos of fat), changed the shape of his nose and eyes, broke his lower jaw and inserted a prosthesis to alter his jawline.

Twelve hours after the successful completion of the operation, Carrillo was found dead, though it took the PGR a week to satisfy themselves - via DNA tests - that the man in the fancy, silver -coloured casket, with the ugly, brown-and-purple bruises on his face, was indeed their public enemy number one.

And they still don't know whether it was murder, negligence or 'natural causes'. The surgeons have disappeared. One, it is rumoured, may already have been murdered by Carrillo's hitmen.

The severity of the operation, and the adrenalin used in performing liposuction, would have put a strain on his heart - already probably weakened by a cocaine habit. 'He snorted cocaine like crazy,' said Eduardo Valle. In the course of an autopsy, one of three performed on the body, forensic pathologists found an absence of nose hairs and deformation of the inside of the nose consistent with a lengthy use of the drug.

The TV programme 24 Hours, however, insists the drug baron was smothered with a pillow, while the press tends to favour the idea of a drug overdose. Nor is everyone convinced - despite the DNA result - that the Lord of the Skies is really dead. In a country addicted to conspiracy theories, Carrillo seems destined to become the Elvis of Mexico.

Back in his home village of El Guamuchilito, whose peasant farmers endure grimy poverty alongside the gleaming, whitewashed walls of the Carrillo family ranch, Amado does at least live up to his name, which translates as 'the loved one'. A constant stream of local people passed through the heavy metal gates of the Finca Santa Aurora to pay their respects, though few were prepared to talk about 'el patron' or his family.

'He only came here when he was 13,' said an elderly woman, contradicting the version provided by Dona Aurora, Amado's mother, who claims all her children were born on the ranch. 'He hardly lasted any time. He grew up and left. I don't know any more about them.' The family's origins are humble and Amado evidently tired of a life of poverty. Though the ranch is a surprisingly modest, one-storey building, and the 100x400-metre grounds don't even contain a swimming pool, the gleaming white Lincoln Town Car that Aurora favoured and the equally shiny Chevy station-wagons and Dodge pickups parked in the drive hint at a substantial unearned income.

Sinaloa is perversely proud of its macho reputation as a narco-haven. At the gate of the ranch a Carrillo employee sports the favourite local headgear - a baseball-cap adorned with a marijuana leaf and Kalashnikov image. But marijuana, he sneers, is 'for the tlacoaches (opossums)' - a slang term for the poor.

In nearby Culiacan is a shrine to the legendary 'Jesus Malverde, an unofficial bandit-saint said to have been shot, then hanged by the hated rurales police in 1909. Visitors come from as far away as Los Angeles to pray for miracles to the Sinaloan Robin Hood, who legend says stole from the landowners and redistributed their wealth. Locals say Amado often visited the shrine, and that he financed the construction of the modest church in El Guamuchilito, as well as the basketball court.

But Robin Hood he was not, nor even Pablo Escobar - his predecessor in the top trafficker slot. Escobar built houses for the poor. Carrillo, it seems, just built them for himself.